Friday, June 29, 2012

Midnight in Peking

January 8, 1937. The body of a young white woman is found in a ditch near the Fox Tower area of Peking. She was badly mutilated, her heart, kidneys and lungs were removed. Her platinum watch remained, however, near the area long believed to be haunted. So starts the book Midnight in Peking, a true story of a brutal murder and an equally brutal search for her killer.

The book starts with a detailed political history of China from its early days to the time of the crime, the late 1930's. Japan is preparing to invade China. There are still British imperialists living in a sequestered area of Peking. French and Italian legations occupy the area as well. Few westerners live outside their respective country's legation but Pamela Werner and her father did. Pamela, Werner's adopted daughter was a loner, spoke fluent Mandarin and was given free reign in the city by her father. She came and went pretty much as she pleased resulting in her expulsion from several schools.

The night watchman who found Pamela's body was a local man. He ran a mile to the security phone to call the local police and then the coroner. By the time those men arrived Pamela's body was so mutilated it look like she had been ravaged by the wild dogs of the area. With no identification except for the watch, and her coloring, the police had to search for her identity. At the same time, Werner was reporting his daughter missing to the local British authorities.

The book continues through the story of the murder investigation, branching off to include some background about the local Chinese politics and the local British ex-pat situation. Japan was preparing to invade. Britain was loosing control and the foreigners were getting worried that their insular way of living was being threatened. Foreigners were pretty much left alone by the local police. Laws that applied outside the legations did not necessarily apply with in them and they did no necessarily apply to businesses frequented by foreigners.

I found this book fascinating for several reasons. First it takes place during interesting times. Politics in Asia in the 1930's were in a state of flux and they provide a backdrop for the story. Second the story gives some insight into the lives of westerners living through those times. And lastly it is the story of a father's search for the killer of his daughter in the face of government indifference and corruption. Well written with great historical detail it was one of the best books I've read this year.

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Tuesday, June 26, 2012

4 Hot Summer Reads

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

This may be THE "good summer read" that everyone has been asking for.  A page turning suspense/thriller with short chapters that you will read eagerly to find out how events unfold.  Pay attention to the chapter headings, which note the character name and the date.

Amy Elliott Dunne, New Yorker, grew up in a household headed by two psychologists. Amy's parents wrote a children's series called Amazing Amy, loosely based on her life. The books were used in schools around the country, leading to a tidy profit for the Drs Elliott. Each book chapter concluded with a quiz, which offered the student choices between possible courses of action. Growing up, Amy felt famous, cherished, beautiful and wealthy.

Amy married Nick Dunne, a New York writer. After losing his job, Nick moved Amy to his home town in Missouri, to help care for his aging parents. Amy yearned for New York, making no secret about her feelings about living "in the sticks."

As Gone Girl opens, Amy is gone. No one knows where, and Nick is the prime suspect in her disapearance. Alternating chapters take the reader back and forth between Nick and Amy's perspectives. To add intrigue, some of Amy's diary entries earn chapters of their own. The local police, a group of well meaning rescuers, Amy's parents, and past and present loves add more layers of plot a drama.
A very enjoyable, good summer read.

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The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson

This is a quirky, odd, and very enjoyable book.Parents Camille and Caleb Fang are performance artists, dedicated to creating "happenings" that far surpass the traditional concept of static art (photography, sculpture, painting, etc.). As their children are born, they become integral elements in their parent's performances. We first meet the family when "Child A and Child B", also known as Annie and Buster, live at home and create performance art with their parents. When they grow up and leave the nest, Fang art takes another direction. As adults who live at home again, Annie and Buster are profoundly confused when their parent's blood spattered van is found abandoned at a highway rest station, Camille and Caleb missing. Is this just another piece of wacky performance art? Were they really harmed? Could they be dead? Did they disappear intentionally? Did they intend that Annie and Buster grieve their death or search for them? Highly recommended.

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The Land of Decoration by Grace McCleen

A very quirky, thought provoking book that is still on my mind. Main character 10 year old Judith, raised by her fanatically religious father, is having a hard time fitting in with the kids at school. Her father preaches that Armageddon is imminent, and only strict observance to the rules will save them. Judith worships with her father, but seeks to control a world of her own in her room. She creates "The Land of Decoration", a world of her own making with discarded gum wrappers and pipe cleaners, foil and buttons. As her universe takes form, she begins to believe that what she creates or destroys in her room impacts the outside world as well. A fascinating perspective from a young girl's eyes, causing the reader to consider the many facets of religious belief and parent child dynamics.

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Carry the One by Carol Anshaw

Another very hot summer book. The story begins in Wisconsin at a 70's hippie style wedding. A group of friends who have been partying leave the wedding together in an over packed car which is involved in an accident that kills a young girl. The rest of the book reflects back on how one choice, one event, can stick with you throughout your life.The author pulls the reader through the lives of three siblings Nick, Alice and Carmen, as they live their lives always having the "carry the (memory of the) one" who was killed. The author writes very strong characters, and is an excellent storyteller.

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Friday, June 22, 2012

Treasure Island!!!

Treasure Island!!! by Sara Levine is short, quirky, sad, funny, outrageous, delightful and delightfully original. The protagonist, 25 years old. who tells the story in her voice, reads Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson and decides to live by the Core Values of the book, which she identifies as Boldness, Resolution, Independence, Horn-Blowing.

As she lives her life by these values, she interacts with her loving parents and sister and a sweet boyfriend. Some of the most memorable interactions occur with her employer and in the Pet Library where she works. (What an excellent concept - people check out animals from this library, not books!) She buys a parrot which figures prominently in the story. She is hard on those around her (including the parrot) and hard on herself.

As Rebecca Barry states in her review in The New York Times, the story is told by a "quintessential unreliable narrator, one who sees other people’s flaws perfectly and almost never her own, who feints and dodges nimbly around her deep feelings and questionable mental stability like a sailor dancing the hornpipe. "

Sara Levine is the chair of the graduate writing program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Her short stories have been published; this is her first novel. Many who have read this book vow to re-read Stevenson's Treasure Island. I have not talked with anyone nor read a review by anyone planing to adopt the Core Values. I have, however, started re-reading Stevenson's book. My thanks to the person who recommended Sara Levine's book to me. I would enjoy seeing the thoughts and comments of other readers of either Levine's or Stevenson's Treasure Island.

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Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Uninvited Guests

Set in an English country house a train ride away from London, Uninvited Guests is the story of a lovable but dysfunctional upper class British family. Charlotte Swift is in her second marriage to Edward. They are living in the house, called Sterne, her first husband bought when he decided he wanted the life of a country gentleman. The Swifts are in danger of losing the house as Edward is not the moneyed man Torrington was. He is also reviled by his step children, Emerald, Cloris (a particularly vile 20 year old male) and Smudge - real name Imogene.

The story takes place over the course of 24 hours. It is Emerald's birthday, Edward has gone to London to arrange financing for the house and Charlotte is in her usual swoon. Smudge meanwhile is planning her own surprise. Apparently she likes to draw outlines of animals on her bedroom walls in charcoal and she has just the next animal in mind.

Just as the party is getting underway the house members receive word of a major train crash with injuries. The survivors need to be housed somewhere and there are no hotels in the area so Sterne is pressed into service. The survivors show up injured and bedraggled. They are shown into the house. But after the first group arrives a single man shows up, a Charlie Traversham-Beecher. He claims to know Charlotte, was a friend of hers when she was younger. He doesn't look like he was just in a train wreck, he's dressed for a party. This is where the book gets interesting.

The story line continues through the evening. The survivors are in the house, Charlie is in the house, drinking with Cloris and everything is in a tumult. People must be served food, no one has any information from the rail company and just what does Charlie Traversham-Beecher know about Charlotte anyway? The there is little twist at the end that came as a surprise to me. It didn't detract from the story, in fact it tied it together nicely.

In the spirit of Downton Abby and Upstairs Downstairs, the book deals with the lives of an upper class British family, their ways and secrets. It is a nice play on the morals of the time as well. I recommend this book.

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Friday, June 15, 2012

The Technologists

It is 1868 and Boston harbor is a busy place, especially now that all the ships seem to have lost their ability to navigate and are crashing into each other. No one has ever seen anything like it and no one has an explanation for it. The captains all reported that their instruments failed - all at the same time. The police are baffled and turn to Harvard College for help, asking Professor Agassiz to head the investigation. The police have no faith in the "new" school, the Institute of Technology.

Marcus Mansfield is a senior at the Institute of Technology. He and his friends Edwin Hoyt and Bob Richards are all seniors enjoying a boating outing on the Charles River when they are attacked by a group of Harvard students lead by Blaike, the best rower at Harvard and somewhat of a nasty man. Vain and mean he loves to give the Institute students a hard time. He is also trying to have the Institute shut down.

As Agassiz is starting his investigation, the glass in the windows in the buildings in the business district begins to melt, turning colors before they do. People become encased in the melted glass, some dying. Agassiz is at a total loss as to the cause, thinking it has something to do with a shift in the earth. Meanwhile Marcus decides that he and the other Institute of Technology students will investigate on their own. A risky business as, Harvard is trying to take over the Institute and the rumors on the street blame the Institutes's scientific studies for the events. The students decide to form their own society and call themselves "The Technologists." The students have a variety of specialities, chemistry, mathematics, physics and they use their knowledge to solve the events.

I will admit I was not a fan of the Dante Club, but I really liked this book. The constant tension between Harvard and MIT lent a nice twist to the story and there is just a hint of science fiction. The story line gives some background on the founding of MIT and the clashes with Harvard over students. But as a warning, once the Technologists get into their search for answers there is more than a little bit of physics and chemistry involved. Not to mean you have to have a degree in either one of them just be warned there is some technical detail. It's a nice thriller with a little twist.

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Friday, June 8, 2012

Birds of a Lesser Paradise

Birds of a Lesser Paradise, by Megan Mayhew Bergman, is a beautifully-written and poignant debut collection of short stories. In it, the author explores our complicated relationship with love--love for an aging parent, love between a man and a woman, and love for a child. The main characters are all seekers exploring the sometimes dark recesses of their thoughts. The connecting thread between the stories is the relationship of the main characters to the animal world.

The first story is especially powerful. In it, a daughter drives many miles to see a parrot her mother once owned. Among its many vocal talents, it can mimic the mother's voice. Despite a relationship fraught with conflict, the daughter longs to hear that familiar voice again. She is mourning her mother's death all the more because so much was left unresolved.

I was determined not to fight back, she recalls of one of her visits. There was heat between us, long-standing arguments we couldn't remember but could still feel burning--should we sell Dad's tools? Should she go to the eye doctor? Who would care for her goddamned bird? Didn't I know how hard they'd worked to give me the right opportunities? Our disagreements were so sharp, so intense that we'd become afraid to engage with each other, and when we stopped fighting, we lost something. (P. 10)

This inability to communicate is a central theme in the story, and with it, the accompanying isolation. The African Gray becomes the object of her mother's affection-- the animal she speaks softly to, loves and holds dear. We know from the beginning that this bird will ultimately be abandoned, that loss is part of the human condition, and that expression of our true feelings often goes unsaid to those closest to us.

The first story sets the tone for the 11 others. They are all exquisitely sad, yet life affirming. The central characters are not only quirky (as are the animals), but are strong and independent. They are women who know what they want and have made sacrifices accordingly. Yet they accept that death is a real part of life, and that life itself presents hard choices. Ultimately, when the narrator in "The Two-Thousand-Dollar Sock" cannot pay for surgery on her dog, understanding that the medical bills of her husband and baby come first, she does her best to comfort him and give him an easy death. But her dog finds the strength to chase down a bear that threatens his owners. He goes out victorious.

There is no need to explain to our daughter the death of her first dog, she concludes. Poppy, better than any of us, understands the urge to have what you must have. She can still wring what she wants from the world. It has listened to her cries and delivered. She still trusts the raw pull of desire. (p. 221)

Birds of a Lesser Paradise is a deeply moving collection of short stories, reminiscent of the work of Alice Munro, Elizabeth Strout, Lorrie Moore and Lauren Groff. Although Megan Bergman's short stories have appeared separately, this is her first published collection. It is a wonderful beginning for this talented, young author and a gift to all who read her.

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Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Death of a Mystery Writer

Joining the Downton Abbey bandwagon, I decided to read some books set in the same time. That's how I picked up Death of a Mystery Writer by Robert Barnard. The book was originally published in 1979 and received an Edgar nomination for best novel. I can see why. Barnard is a new author for me.

The book opens on a Saturday night at the local pub. A man is sitting at the bar by himself. He has been over served and knocks over another patrons glass. A verbal altercation ensues and he is identified as Sir Oliver Fairleigh's son, Mark. Sir Oliver is a mystery writer of some success. Mark makes a claim that someone should shoot his father, that the man would be better off dead. And that he (Mark) would certainly be better off.

The story line weaves through the next week. Fairleigh is not a nice man, in fact he likes to stir things up. It doesn't matter who or what he stirs up the tumult is what he desires. And stir things up he does. He insults his wife, his children (except his daughter), his neighbors, and his publisher on a routine basis. It's no wonder someone poisons him at his birthday dinner.

Enter Chief Inspector Meredith who seems to have come right out of one of Fairleigh's mystery novels. Meredith has his hands full. Fairleigh was killed in a method detailed in one of his books. But still, who did it? The will provides some answers, but after it sends the family into an uproar when Fairleigh leaves most of his estate to his son Mark (the black sheep) and the royalties from a book that was never published to his wife.

The book moves along at a brisk pace. The characters are interesting and it seems that everyone has a secret Inspector Meredith must discover before he can solve the question of who killed Fairleigh. I quite enjoyed this book, it's a fast read with a good mystery at the heart of it. The library owns 15 mysteries by Barnard, all definitely worth the read.

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Friday, June 1, 2012

Wild Thing

Wild Thing is Josh Bazell's second novel dealing with former mob hit man turned doctor Lionel Azimuth (aka Peter brown). Bazell is either a writing genius or insane. I am going with genius. The novel continues the trials and tribulations of the good doctor, now known as Dr. Pietro Brnwa, who has taken a job on a cruise ship as the junior doctor. The mob is after him and he figures this might be a good place to hide out. In the first 6 pages we have sex, profanity, 2 deaths and medical malpractice. There is also a genuine laugh out loud moment.

Lionel has been called to a meeting with a reclusive billionaire that he calls RecBill. RecBill wants Lionel to checkout a DVD of a mysterious sea creature that is supposed to be in a lake in the Minnesota boundary waters. It is similar to the Loch Ness monster except this one is a carnivore since it has killed 2 people and eaten parts of them. RecBill has received an invitation to go on a hunt for the monster. He hooks Lionel up with Dr. Violet Hurst a paleontologist who also works for RecBill. She is a catastrophic paleontologist working on the end of the world scenarios. Lionel agrees mostly because he needs the money to further his plan to get the mob off his back and stop trying to kill him.

The book moves backward in time to give the reader the history of the monster and the town of Ford in northern Minnesota. Apparently one man has been maimed and 2 teenagers killed by this sea monster. Years ago some locals tried to create a hoax involving the monster in hope of reviving the town. The hoax ended with the deaths of 2 of the perpetrators. Lionel and Violet meet the rest of the expedition in Ford. There is a meth lab going on in the only restaurant and not many people around in the town, there is however a top notch guide company and guest house owned by the organizer of the event where all the expedition members stay. The trip is delayed while they await the arrival of a "government representative" who will certify the sea creature is not a hoax, if it is found. This person turns out to be a former candidate for the vice presidency of the U.S. (See what I mean about genius?)

The story line goes through the mystery of the monster, the meth trade in the town of Ford and the mob still trying to kill Lionel. The story ends with a political and environmental treatise by Victoria. While the ending was somewhat bizarre, the main portion of the book was great. Entertaining with some funny moments and some surprises. Bazell's writing style includes footnotes that can be merely asides to the action contained on the page or real footnotes in the sense they actually contain explanatory information. There is also a section of sources which Bazell readily admits might not have been used in the way they were originally intended to be.

I like Bazell's books, I really do. They are just outlandish enough to be entertaining to me. And really, the premise of a hit man turned doctor? Just genius.

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